Recently, I decided to make an amplification change with my system. Sharp-eyed readers may recall I previously had the fantastic Manley Labs Jumbo Shrimp preamplifier mated to their Mahi mono blocks. Unfortunately, numerous factors prevented them from staying permanently. In short, every time I had the cash together, something major went wrong which took precedence. It was a sad day when taking one of those three boxes to UPS and returned them to California. Would have far preferred the Manley gear over two nearly new Hyundais, one of which I almost totaled a few short months after purchase.
I coasted along with my Juicy Music Peach preamplifier mated to my Bella Extreme 3205 power amplifier. I liked the combo, but after my experience with the Manley Labs setup, I no longer loved it. Add the fact that my Peach was a non-remote first generation model, and began to look around for another solution. Ended up purchasing a Peachtree Audio Nova. As a preamplifier/DAC combo, it really is a fantastic piece, especially at the $1199 price. Used as an integrated amplifier, it wasn't a good match for the Salk Signature Sound Songtowers: it just did not have enough drive to make the Songtowers sing. That's ok, not every amplifier will mate well with every speaker. But mated to an external power amplifier, it worked well.
However, the memory of the Manley gear haunted me. One night I thought of the pieces previous reviewed over the years and remembered the Jungson JA-88D(09). While a solid state piece, it is an amplifier that this tube lover could certainly easily be happy with. Remote control... check. Phono stage with MC capability... check. Stellar build quality... check. I called Grant Fidelity in Canada (the North American distributor) to order one, and spoke to Ian Grant. I have reviewed a few of their offerings over the years (and purchased their Shuguang Treasure KT88s as well as outfitted my entire system with their Grant Fidelity PC 1.5 power cables) and believe Ian understands my tastes. I was taken aback when he refused to take my money.
"You know that the Jungson is a great amp, but it isn't you." Ian chided. "You are a tube guy. We have something really special in the works that would be right up your alley. Actually, I was getting ready to call you." After explaining precisely what it was, I took Ian up on his offer of a review. A month later, the very first production unit released from the factory was in my living room.
The Grant Fidelity W-30GT
While it is what I have emphasized in bold that makes the Grant Fidelity W-30GT revolutionary, all of the features combined make it special, as well as future proof. Let me explain.
Many tube amplifiers can accept different types of output tubes. This is just one of the reasons that I generally prefer tube amplification. Tube swaps allow the end user to find the tube type and model that not only blends with their system, but also their personal taste. Tubes within the same type (i.e. KT88) will also sound different between different manufacturers, just as they will between different tube types- the KT88 compared to the EL34, for example. With the W-30, there is additional flexibility with the ability to swap the preamplifier and driver tubes for other types. The preamplifier tubes are the two front mounted tubes. One could, for example, change the preamplifier tubes to 6922s and save the 6N1s as spare driver tubes. I found that the supplied Shuguang 6N1 tubes were excellent performers in this application. Grant Fidelity supplies fully tested 1970s vintage NOS (new old stock) military spec tubes with the W-30GT.
High Resolution Digital
How About Cans?
I was concerned about posting pictures of the guts of the W-30GT online due to my concerns over Grant Fidelity's intellectual property, as well as liability on the part of Enjoy the Music.com or myself. When I asked Ian for permission, he said, "Sure, go ahead. Someone will most definitely copy the idea. Good luck meeting our price to performance ratio." Because the W-30GT offers both Pre Out/Main in jumpers, one could use the W-30GT as a power amplifier or use it with a surround sound processor and integrate it into a home theater setup. The subwoofer outputs are also a welcome addition for those who own one (or more) or may add subwoofers in the future.
Adjusting the bias current the first time (or after tube replacement) is easy. Ian recommends 0.46 to 0.47 VDC for the KT88/6550 tube types. Bias adjustment takes about 10 minutes. Because the bias potentiometers are very linear in operation, it is actually easy to adjust the bias out to three decimal points. Cool for super picky types (like me.) After this is finished, the final thing to do is to decide whether to run clothed or naked. That is, with or without the protective tube cage. I decided on without, thinking that the W-30GT resembled a 21st century version of vintage tube amplifiers from Fisher and H.H. Scott. Because my Zu Audio DL-103 is a low output moving coil cartridge, I used my Denon AU300LC step up transformer ($299) to raise the output to make it suitable for the W-30GT0's phono input.
Important Information For Mac Users
Feeding the W-30GT through its optical input I was good to go, right? Not so fast Jack! It seems that although the hardware inside Macs will pass a 24/192 signal, the operating system will not. Apple, for some unknown reason has "dumbed down" Snow Leopard to pass a maximum 24/96 signal via Toslink. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The easiest (and one of most cost effective) ways to get 24/192 out of a Mac is to use M2Tech's HiFace, which plugs into a USB port and has either a BNC or a RCA output. Our own Mike Galusha bought 3 of them before his review and graciously lent me a spare. Even with standard 16/44 files through the Peachtree Nova, the HiFace was obviously far superior to the Toslink connection I had been using. I heard it immediately. I bought my own within a few days, and Mike has his back. Financially, this review is running in the red. Thank God I have a day job.
For this review, my HiFaced 2010 Mac Mini fed the W-30GT's coaxial digital input with my JPS Labs Ultra Conductor + digital cable. Digital music players used were iTunes (free) Audiofile Engineering's Fidelia (Basic License $20) and Pure Music from Channel D ($129.) In keeping with the spirit of the review, I used Fidelia the majority of the time.
Once the W-30GT settled in, I found it on the warm side of neutral, but only just. This isn't a warm, wooly sounding amplifier that the solid state crowd thinks of when they think of tubes. In fact, I think the solid state crowd would actually like the W-30GT: it has the bass extension and slam that the solid state crowd craves, and the tube crowd sometimes makes excuses for - "Yeah, it could have more composure in the bass, but listen to that glorious midrange." The W-30GT needs no excuses- it does it all and does it well. The midrange may be just a bit colored, not syrupy and romantic, but there is something there that the tubes add. Tube lovers call it the tube "magic." Those who are looking for a music system that draws one into the music and not the gear would do quite well with the W-30GT. Dragnet listeners (just the facts ma'am) will say the W-30GT is colored (it is) and not natural. That's where they would be dead wrong. The W-30GT is one of the most natural sounding, involving amplifiers I have ever heard, at any price. The Peachtree Audio Nova (used as a preamplifier/DAC) is far more neutral than the W-30GT, but combined with the Salk Signature Sound Songtowers (one of the most neutral and revealing speakers it their price range) it was just too neutral. A little color is a good thing.
The first thing I noticed about the W-30GT was that it is quiet-no hum or hiss. Either one will drive me nuts, but especially hum. If it hums, it is out the door. Even the phono stage is extremely quiet- there is a very small of hiss at full gain. At normal listening levels, the W-30GT's phono stage is completely silent. Keep in mind this is using a low output moving coil cartridge (0.3 mV) with a step up transformer-probably the harshest test for the W-30GT. A higher output cartridge (2.5 mV or above) will not need a step up device and may actually be quieter.
Because Grant Fidelity offers the Shuguang Treasure Series KT88 tubes at a discounted upgrade and because I already had a quad of them installed in my personal amplifier, I could not resist finding out the difference the upgrade made. And the difference between garden variety Shuguang KT-88s and their upscale Treasure KT88s transformed the amplifier (as good as it is) from a great value great sounding amplifier to something that transcends belief. Really! Listening to Chris Isaak's Baja Sessions, a CD rip via the W-30GT's coaxial input, I realized that if I had not been aware of the W-30GT's price, considering its features, and more importantly the music it makes, I would have guessed that the W-30GT would have been priced somewhere in the $5500 to $6000 ballpark. It easily competes in that arena. The fact that this level of performance is available at $2350 (with the upgraded tubes) is mindboggling.
While I did spend a fair amount of time enjoying the high resolution albums in my collection, I found that the sheer musicality of the W-30GT allowed me to enjoy my entire music collection whether it be LP or digital files, high resolution or not. Nearly every album listened to was presented differently than expected as most were better, some were worse.
One album that I cannot seem to get enough of with the W-30GT here is Pink Floyd's The Wall. During the dynamic swing of "In The Flesh the presentation via the W-30GT was big. bold and impressive. What I found most alluring was the slam of Nick mason's drumming. I'm on my second vinyl copy of this album, and own both the original CD's as well as the Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs reissue. The MFSL version was my favorite via the W-30GT, which isn't the case usually, as I find it just a little thick sounding. The W-30GT seemed to sort everything out perfectly, with everything in its proper place. While still a bit more bass heavy that the other releases, with the W-30GT in play, the extra bass laid the perfect foundation as opposed to being distracting.
Switching over to high resolution material, all downloaded from HD Tracks, the W-30GT taught me a valuable lesson. While high resolution recordings are usually better tan the standard versions, don't get hung up on the numbers. While I have a couple of Rolling Stones albums (Through the Past Darkly and the U.S. version of Aftermath both 24/176) they are not my favorites, nor are they the best sounding. I would far rather listen to The Who's Tommy, which is "just" 24/96. Another great choice is The Moody Blues Days of Future Passed, again in 24/96. Both of these recordings far surpass the standard issues, and cost less as well. I do appreciate that the W-30GT can play any resolution currently available. As far as the source material, results vary.
One surprise was Joni Mitchell's landmark 1971 release Court And Spark. I never realized how positively bad the digital version is. It sounds as if everything was run through a compressor. There is significantly reduced soundstage on the CD. It is as if all the performers are sharing the same two feet of studio space. Not good.
And that is the thing I did find very interesting and yet very hard to understand about the W-30GT. Most recordings sounded fantastic- in fact I haven't heard a soundstage depth behind the speakers this good with any equipment in my listening room. On the other hand a few recordings actually sounded worse with the W-30GT. The good thing is the better sounding recordings were by far in the majority. Even LPs that I copied to CD for listening in the car sounded quite good. Am not talking about sonic blockbusters either, just music that I enjoy for the sake of the music. That's the point, is it not?
Listening through headphones is not my preference. I have actually owned the same pair of cans for twenty years, the Sony MDRV6. That they are unchanged and still in production says something. At $100 or so they are a good choice, but the Grant Fidelity W-30GT really cries out for something better. Although I enjoyed the Sonys with the W-30GT, I really wish I had a pair Sennheiser HD650s here.
Listening to Cream's Live at the Royal Albert Hall, I was initially surprised at the tonal balance of the W-30GT's phono section. Every other time I have listened to this LP, Jack Bruce's bass overpowered. This is natural considering the fact that Bruce's bass volume on stage was a bone of contention between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. With the W-30GT, Bruce's bass was in balance within the trio. I found myself more drawn into the vocals, and Clapton's exquisite guitar work. The W-30GT's performance (on this LP) was center of the hall, and did an excellent job portraying the size of the hall.
The next LP I spun during this session was Little Feat's Down On The Farm. On the title track, I detected a lack of drive compared to what I am used to. The bottom end, while very good was missing a bit of punch. This observation goes hand in hand with my observations listening to Cream. I decided to compare the LP to my ripped CD. As can be expected, the slight surface noise was gone on the digital rip- replaced by a slight amount of tape hiss. But the bottom end was back. Gone however was a pureness in the midrange of the LP, very noticeable on the next track "Six Feet of Snow"- the digital rip sounded a tad dull in comparison to the LP. Lowell George's guitar work just sounded more real on the LP. The upper frequencies a sounded more extended on the LP version as well. If the bottom end had been a bit ore fleshed out, it would have been perfect.
I decided to pull out my DCC/Asylum pressing of Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark to listen after being less than thrilled with the generic CD through the built in DAC. This one was a night and day improvement over the built in DAC. Remastered by Steve Hoffman, listening through the W-30GT literally was through the W-30GT. It was as if the amplifier just stepped aside and music flowed straight from my SOTA Star to the speakers. Mitchell's voice and acoustic guitar of on "Free Man in Paris" were crystal clear, but what I found compelling in this track was the drum work, which is not my usual focus. The multi tracked vocals in the chorus also grabbed my attention. On the next track, I found myself drawn to Mitchell's vocals and acoustic guitar because they are out front the bass guitar caught my attention as well. Again, very well balanced not only top to bottom but also front to rear and side to side as well.
As good as the W-30GT is at playing rock on vinyl- classical music through the W-30GT's phono inputs is sheer perfection. Classical music lovers should put the W-30GT at the top of their short list. I listened to one of my favorites, Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra)- Vivaldi's Four Seasons is the "sell" here, but the attraction for me of this double LP is side three and J.S. Bach's Double Concerto. The midrange purity of the W-30GT complimented the massed violins like wine compliments cheese. The strings have the perfect mixture of body and smoothness, with just a hint of bite- just as I hear violins live at the Bob Carr Auditorium here in Orlando.
Oddities and Dislikes
First, a very low level beep can be heard in the left channel when making volume adjustments with the remote control. This is unnecessary.
The coaxial digital input jack is not gold plated as are the others.
Speaking of input jacks, the line level CD inputs are of higher quality than the others and are further insulated from the chassis. With such a good DAC on board, how many users will actually use the CD inputs? I would have preferred to see this extra care taken for the phono inputs.
My final negative observation applies to most tube amplifiers (Manley Labs being the exception that comes to mind.) On most tube amplifiers (including the W-30GT) the bias adjustment potentiometers are recessed slightly below the chassis. As I age, I find that there is an extra tool required for bias adjustments beyond a screwdriver and a multi meter: a flashlight. I would prefer that the bias potentiometers be raised flush to the chassis top plate.
Oddly, the W-30GT ships with KT88 output tubes, but the top place is marked for bias settings for EL34/6CA7 tubes. Although the marked settings will work with KT88s, my experience here tells me these settings are too low for maximum performance.
Keep in mind that the unit here is the very first off the production line. Most (if not all) of my dislikes are minor indeed, and can be easily changed for future production. Value and sound wise, I would feel the same about the Grant Fidelity W-30GT if the phono stage was absent, but the price remained the same.